What, no freshers' week?!

Is now the moment our ancient university system finally collapses?

Ed Fidoe

Chief Executive, The London Interdisciplinary School

No more technological innovation is required.

You can already access all of the content that is taught on any undergraduate degree course at any institution anywhere in the world, for free, online.

So why bother with university at all? 

Perhaps for the first time, those sixth formers that could go, are asking this question in large numbers. Covid-19 is forcing an interrogation of what university is for. 

It seems that in 2020 one in five students plan to defer (3x the norm), when the idea of a gap year has never been less exciting. Universities are scrambling to put courses online. Departmental autonomy means there will be huge variance in this execution, within institutions, let alone between them. 

But does this all spell a larger shift? A remodelling of the entire post-school journey? I hope it does. But not in the way many are predicting.

Predictions of change are nothing new.

In 2013, Michael Barber (now chair of the Office for Students, the sector’s main regulator) co-authored An Avalanche Is Coming, which argued that universities are made up of ten elements, such as credentials, knowledge transfer, student socialising and research. These could all be ‘unbundled’, and provided in other ways, mostly using technology, lending fragility to the whole icy edifice. A total collapse was coming.

Yet undergraduate participation is at record highs, including amongst the most disadvantaged. So far online learning has only reinforced the existing model rather than disrupt it. 80% of those who take MOOCs already have a Bachelor’s degree. 

But what about those deferrals? Could Covid-19 be the trigger that dislodges the frozen mass? Will all the elements become unbundled and reappear in other packages?

I’m not so sure. But more on that later. Firstly, let’s challenge the assumption that we have the right elements in place. 

Often the content of what students are learning is ignored. My hope is for a major revaluation; specifically, a challenge to the hegemony of the single-discipline degree.

Could Covid-19 jolt us into realising the importance of interdisciplinary thinking and its application to real world complex problems? Do we really trust that those leading us through this crisis have a grasp of biomedical science (nature of disease, epidemiology), systems thinking (second order consequences, feedback loops), psychology (magical thinking, environmental numbness) and maths (exponentials), as well as the Politics, Philosophy and Economics that they all seemingly studied? This crisis surely makes a compelling case for universities to teach problem-solving and interdisciplinarity, not just siloed subjects.

Frozen solid?

We should always pause before writing off something that has been around for hundreds of years (see the Lindy effect). Recent inventions fade faster than older ones. The knife and fork are likely to outlast the smartphone. 

Like most observers I think we’ll see the Russell Group endure along with those who have developed more imaginative, career focused offers. They will need to make one adjustment; maintain a more blended teaching approach post Corona (Cambridge are already moving all lectures online; I doubt they’ll go back).

However, for the first time ever we could see a number of institutions fail entirely. Several have been surviving on the sugar high of international student fees, despite lower prestige and a ‘me too’ subject offer. Without major government support their time is probably up.  

All of this is less of an avalanche, more coastal erosion. And the bundle will probably hold. A reluctance to settle for ‘Freshers’ Week on Zoom’ doesn’t mean a fundamental demand shift. Personally I believe that students are paying for the bundle of experiences. They understand that magic happens in the gap between the elements. The whole is more than the sum. 

Single discipline - multiple effects

But those that remain, especially the Russell Group, must act to break the single disciple stranglehold. This is vital for at least three reasons:

  1. Single discipline degrees, and the accompanying admissions process, drive the narrowing of our school curriculum from 14 onwards (both phenomena are UK-isms) 
  2. Employers are unimpressed with what is taught now. 84% of leading employers think the actual content of your degree is irrelevant
  3. The problems our society faces are increasingly interdisciplinary and interconnected

So the major problem is not the method of delivery, or the cost (the student fees settlement is relatively progressive); it is the content.

This poses a real challenge to incumbents. Structural and political barriers between disciplines have ossified. It may require new entrants, which is why we are starting the London Interdisciplinary School.  

Progress has been made before. The benefits of a university degree are more democratised than ever (35% now attend, up from 5% in two generations), but it will only be a lasting instrument of social mobility if it truly prepares young people for the economy they will enter. 

We have to focus on what students are actually learning.  

(Most) universities are probably here to stay.   

If that is true, let’s make sure they are teaching students the right stuff.

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